Holocaust Humor

The second copy of the original manuscript, thought lost for decades.

It was 1938, and Germany and Austria had just merged, to the delight of most Germans… and Austrians. Among the undelighted were Austria’s Jewish minority, not only the out-of-the-frying-pan refugees from German persecution, but also the native Austrian Jews. Like the Jews of Germany, the Austrians considered themselves patriotic citizens and were highly assimilated into the national culture and well-represented in the professions.

They all knew that staying in Nazi Germany would be bad, although nobody knew how bad. While they tried to arrange emigration — something that required large bribes paid to various Nazi people and organizations — they reacted as men under terrible stress have always done, since time immemorial.

They joked about it.

Those of us who contemplated emigration were certainly not in any mood to laugh. And yet perhaps nothing encapsulates the tragedy of our situation–and also the world’s indifference to our fate–better than this little selection of anecdotes that did the rounds among Viennese would-be émigrés at that time. Gallows humour of the Emigration.

Three Jews, who are considering emigration, meet on a street-corner. ‘I’m going to England,’ says the first. ‘I’m going to America,’ says the second. ‘And I’m going to Australia,’ declares the third. ‘Such a long way!’ cries the first, in amazement. To which the one destined for Australia simply replies: ‘A long way from where?’

We didn’t quite get that, or find it funny. But the comedian can be forgiven a certain degree of performance anxiety. Underlying these emigration jokes is the cold fact that England, America, and Australia were not at all anxious to give immigration visas to threatened Jews, particularly as the Nazi regime would ensure that they were stripped of everything they owned in the emigration process, and arrived penniless and dependent.

On to the next joke. They get better (and bitter).

Four Jews, this time. The same old question about destination. The first replies: ‘China.’ The second: ‘New Zealand.’ The third: ‘Bolivia.’ ‘Well,’ says the fourth, ‘I’m staying here.’ The others look at him for a moment in silence. Finally one says, in a tone of admiration: ‘My God: that is adventurous!’

The poor fellow, of course, had no idea.

And finally: one Jew, who has walked his feet sore in the futile effort to get hold of some kind of visa, finally goes into a travel agency. ‘I must get out,’ he tells the man at the desk, in desperation. ‘But where to, where to? Can you give me any advice?’ The man fetches a globe. ‘Here,’ he says, ‘here you have all the countries in the world. You must be able to find something here.’

The Jew turns the sphere this way and that for a long time, shaking his head the whole time. Finally,  crestfallen, he puts it to one side. ‘Well,’ says the man behind the desk, ‘what have you found?’ ‘Oh, sir,’ says the Jew very diffidently, ‘you wouldn’t possibly have another globe, would you? There’s no room for me on this one.’

In this postwar memoir, hidden away for decades and only translated and published recently, the author quickly shifts from the black humor of 1938 to the black despair of retrospect:

To this day I cannot rid myself of a feeling of bitterness, when I think of the endless forest of red tape that was put in our way by most states at that time, as we begged for visas. With a little good will, it would have been possible to save everyone.

Meanwhile Goering–the stout, jovial Goering–had announced even in those days, in Vienna: ‘For Jews who are not able to leave, there are only two possibilities: to die of hunger or to be rooted out by fire and sword.’

 

The author of that was a newspaper man — until the Anschluß, which fired him — and Viennese man of culture and letters, Moriz Scheyer. It is telling that the only pre-1945 photograph of Scheyer to come down in his family is the one fastened to his press pass to the celebrated Vienna Opera.

Unlike so many of the wearily joking Austrian Jews of 1938, Scheyer survived to live free in France, but only after the swastikas were crushed, dynamited and burnt, along with many of the great cities of Europe, by the mighty forces of many nations. He wrote his memoir Ein Überlebender (“A Survivor”) while being concealed from the Nazis in the Convent of Labarde, Dordogne, and he revised the work — once — after his liberation.

The book recounts many close calls, narrow escapes, and dreadful discoveries. But the essence and despair of it is in a sentence you have already read, and we shall repeat:

It would have been possible to save everyone.

Had someone stood up to Hitler, over the Anschluß (unlikely), or over the Rhineland or Czechoslovakia, “everyone” who might have been saved might have been a very high number indeed, not a “mere” six millions. Certainly, had the West truly understood that the Austrian Jews were fated for the disposal that would be formalized four years later at Wannsee, they’d have done something, but the primitive barbarity of the Holocaust was sui generis in modern times.

As you see in the interactions today of great powers with small tyrants, there is always a reason not to act. And if you see the outcome of attempted interventions, there’s always a question as to whether it would have been better, as a net-net humanitarian matter, to let the situation be.

Scheyer’s book’s single manuscript came into the hands of his (ultimately British) stepson, Konrad Singer, who thought it too bitter to publish, and destroyed it. Only years later did Konrad’s son, Moriz Scheyer’s grandson, P.N. Singer, in a project to record family history, find a second copy, nearly forgotten in the attic of a relative. Singer translated and published Ein Überlebender in English, under the title Asylum. It is a remarkable story of survival — Scheyer, his wife Grete, and their longtime family nanny Sláva all survived together, thanks to the Sisters of the Convent among others — but it’s also a look at a remarkable time in history from a unique viewpoint, told by one of history’s unwilling participants.

Moritz Scheyer did not survive for many years after the war (P.N. Singer has been very helpful with an explanatory list of characters and an epilog in the book), but he died a free man in a free country, and that is something. The world is fortunate that he, and his remarkable and unique manuscript, survived.

This is a link to the Kindle edition of AsylumFrom that page you can find other editions, and it’s available cheap as a used book.

22 thoughts on “Holocaust Humor

  1. Kirk

    My read of that first joke is that the guy going to Australia has conflated it with Austria, so he thinks he’s staying there where he is…

    Or, maybe that joke doesn’t work as well in spoken German or Yiddish? Dunno… Maybe one of our native German correspondents can chime in on that. Some dialects of German I’ve heard make “Osterreich” sound very much like the English rendition of word, Austria. Maybe it would work in those, and German for Australia being “Australien”…?

    1. Kirk

      OK… I think I get the humor, now–In the original printed text, the body of the joke is in normal type, while the last “where” is in italics, emphasized… The guy answering the first guy’s question is simply saying “OK, yeah, it’s a long ways away, but… From here.

      Which is sort of throwing it back in his face, as in “I’m getting as far away from these Nazis as I can… You’re the idiot moving just a door away…”.

      In other words, he’s passive-aggressively calling the first guy an idiot by emphasizing why they’re moving in the first place… Like “Why wouldn’t you want to get as far away as you could, fool…?”.

      Of course, I could be entirely wrong, because humor is one of those things that often just doesn’t come across, without shared cultural context.

    2. Bill Robbins

      The joke is that the Jews of Europe had no real “home” from which to run, therefore, “far from where?”

      Also, I highly recommend “The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” which is the recovered diary of Herman Kruk, a Jewish intellectual and Bundist from Poland who fled as a refugee to Vilna (Vilnius), in Lithuania, which fell under German occupation and was the locus of the earliest, brutal mass shootings of Jews and other enemies of the Reich. Kruk the became head librarian of the Vilna Ghetto (and helped preserve the history of Vilna’s Jews) and describes in real-time, without knowing his ultimate tragic fate, the slow strangulation and eventual liquidation of the Jews of Vilna by the Nazis and by the Lithuanian and other Baltic collaborators.

      Kruk perished in a work camp in Estonia.

      The diary contains some biting yet funny ghetto humor with uniquely Yiddish sensibility.

  2. Tom Stone

    I met quite a few survivors growing up and a neighbor (Mr Rutledge) showed a group of neighborhood children the documentaries the Germans made of the Final Solution.
    They documented everything.
    I was ten years old.
    “Death to Tyrants!” was a rallying cry during our Revolutionary war and it has not lost relevance.
    For those who need a reminder that sometometimes Faith and Courage overcomes evil I highly recommend “Lest Innocent Blood be Shed” by Phillip Hallie

  3. Simon

    Confusing the two countries does not really work in German. I could not work it out, either.

    1. John M.

      I took it as a commentary on the awfulness of their present (or impending) situation. Who cares how far away Australia is from Austria? Australia is near something, but not the impending problems.

      -John M.

  4. Martin

    I guess the first joke might be connected with the concept of spread diaspora, that Jews at the time didn’t have their own state.

    Anyway, some of the jokes were a bit lighter, like this Jew who was able to get a permission to move to Switzerland, and he was leaving with a big picture of Hitler.

    And the German border police ask him about it: “What is it?” And he says “No, not what is it, but WHO is it? It’s our glorious fuhrer and I’m keeping his picture for remembrance!” So they let him pass.

    And then the Swiss border police ask him about the picture: “Who is it?” And he says “No, not who is it, but WHAT is it? It’s a platinum frame I smuggled from the Third Reich!”

  5. S

    No, the two words are sufficiently different that none of the German dialects can confuse them.

    Jewish humour can be very subtle, and in this case it’s steeped in Teutonic as well. Consider that the speakers are comparing distances to destinations from their current position. The rejoinder “a long way from where?” is a cynical emphasis that the current location really sucks, and the destination (any destination) would be better. It’s deep, especially when you think of the poor wandering Jew perpetually longing for “next year in Jerusalem”…..nowhere else is any good, and everywhere is a reminder of being alien and unwelcome. The crowd before Pilate didn’t think ahead….His blood upon the children’s heads has been a long time paying, and the worst is yet to come before the real Yom Kippur.

  6. staghounds

    A long way from where?’

    Germany. Oy, so obvious.

    There’s not a country in the world bigger than Holland that wouldn’t have been improved by importing every single German and Austrian Jew in 1938.

  7. Trone Abeetin

    And I thought the Angles had a dry sense of humour. It’s like reading astrophysicist humour. Imponderable.

  8. Bill Robbins

    Here’s some ghetto humor from the doomed Vilna Ghetto, in Lithuania, originally in Yiddish, paraphrased from Herman Kruk’s “Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania, which I cited above:

    A German guard asks a ghetto Jew to borrow 20 rubles and, to the German’s surprise, the Jew hands the German 20 rubles. The German remarks, “How can this be that you, a Jew trusts me, a German, to return your 20 rubles? The Jew replies, “The Germans took Stalingrad, and you gave it back. The Germans took Kharkov, and you gave it back. So, I trust you to give me back my 20 rubles.”

  9. Fuel Filter.

    I read “The Rise and Fall” when I was in JR. High and it got me hooked on the ETO for life. I’ve consumed all I could over the years and never get tired of it.  Even though my dad served on a sweeper in the Navy the PTO didn’t grasp my interest all that much. 

    Over the past 4-5 years I have though long and hard about the following and I sincerely hope nobody here gets the wrong impression, although I fear I’m taking a big chance.  I have tried to very carefully word this so that doesn’t happen, so please bear with me.

    Re: the holocaust;  my longest running complaint is that pretty much *everyone* has been trained to think it was only the 6 million Jews that got eliminated. You tell them that there were 6+ million non-Jews as well you get vacant stares, ignored or argumentation. I have never, and I mean *never*, read or heard anything regarding that other 6+ million from any Jew whatsoever. Commentary Mag, Front Page, Tablet, Mosaic, Caroline Glick, Bill Kristol, none of them. They are that focused and single-minded.

    I used to be very pro-Semitic. No longer. Now I’m just indifferent but in no way anti-Semitic. I still abhor what did, and still is, happening to them.  I fully support Trump’s position on Israel and moving our embassy to Jerusalem and especially despise Muslims , neo-Nazis (and quite a few “Christians”) for their visceral hatred of Israel.  

    But they want to cast themselves as the only victims of wholesale murder by the Nazis? Fine by me.  As a result they have lost their primary status as the oppressed minority with me, and a whole lot of others, a long time ago.

    I would hazard a guess that this quote is somewhere in their canon of scripture, but perhaps to often forgotten:

    “What ye sow, that shall ye reap.”

  10. Docduracoat

    As an American who is Jewish, I am glad that Israel exists
    When America eventually turns on its Jewish citizens, like every other country has done in the past, I plan to send my family to Israel.
    I will take my arsenal and head out to the Everglades
    From there I will resist save who I can

    1. Hognose Post author

      And you and your fellow glades dwellers will probably have some pretty bleak graveyard humor. For America’s Jews, so far, so good. It might be your great-grandchildren in that swamp. It might never happen. It’s probably sensible to have a plan, anyway.

      I used to think Jews were imagining things, but I’ve met a few Jew-haters and they’re really out there, at all levels of sophistication.

      1. whomever

        I read ‘Rather Die Fighting’ by Frank Blaichman a few years ago (maybe I heard about it here?). He was a Polish, Jewish teenager who decided to hide in the woods when his village was ‘resettled’ into the Warsaw ghetto. He survived the war fighting as a partisan. I was slightly surprised by the level of anti-semitism he encountered during the war – peasants taking the time to hunt down a band of Jewish kids, for example.

        But the thing that really shocked me – after the war he made his way to Chicago. When the wall fell, he toured Poland and found a gentile lady who had occasionally given them food. He thanked her, and mentioned he could get her recognition for what she had done. She begged him to keep quiet about it – because she didn’t want people to take it out on her kids and grandkids. AFAIK, Poland hasn’t really had any actual Jews to hate since 1945, and yet the anti-semitism still runs that strong.

  11. robroysimmons

    Every group gets turned upon, jeez. Written by a cynical man not one with goyimkopf

  12. Simon

    It is quite true, being a minority in hard times was always dangerous.
    There was a survey in Austria last year or the year before and 42% of the respondents held the Jews responsible for the present economic problems.

  13. Loren

    I had a Jewish friend who’s parents were Holocaust camp survivors. As such I had an in on a culture that as a Catholic, I’d never had access to.
    What I found interesting was the degree of dislike and down right disgust they and their compatriots had for the Christian community of the old world they left behind. There didn’t seem to be any hatred for what was done to them or a desire for revenge just a deep seated dislike of the other culture. Very much like the attitude of the Christian community over there. My grandfather was of German ancestry and simply hated all things Jew.
    My conclusion from many talks is that the schism was and is much more deep seated than blaming a few Nazi’s. The general population hated each other. Perhaps they still do- over there.
    I think we’re ok in the English speaking countries.
    As to Docduracoat’s desire to head to the swamps, I’d suggest heading to DC instead. Perhaps joining a ‘Well Regulated’ Militia” on the way.

  14. E Garrett Perry

    Two Rabbis meet on the streets of Munich in 1937, each carrying a newspaper under his arm.

    “What are you reading?” Asks one Rabbi to the other. “I’ve just recieved this month’s edition of the Jewish Agency newsletter.”

    The second Rabbi proudly holds up a copy of Der Sturmer, the Nazi tabloid.

    “What?!” Says the first Rabbi. “That anti-semitic dreck? What are you, meshugge? Don’t you know those madmen are going to kill us all if they get the chance? And that paper! Goering won’t even let his officers read it, it’s so terrible!”

    “Meshugge?” Says the second Rabbi. “Look- when you read your paper, what does it say? It says we Jews are dying out; we’re losing our cultture, our children are assimilating, nobody goes to yeshiva anymore, nobody wants to be a Rabbi or a Cantor or even a Mohel anymore, and it’s all over for us unless we defy The Oaths and pack up for Palestine, nu? And what does my paper say?” He asks with a broad smile. “It says that we Jews are the mightiest people in all the world, clearly the Chosen of the Almighty! We control the press, the banks, and half of the civilised world; we are everywhere and into everything, and if Something Isn’t Done Soon, why, we’ll have the whole lot! Of course they’re murderous bastards, but when I read Der Sturmer at least I finally hear some good news!”

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